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Startup Parenthood: Should you ask that question about parenthood?

Should you ask that question?


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There are a fair number of jokes and warnings out there about not asking certain kinds of questions, particularly around pregnancy.  There’s not asking a woman if she’s pregnant.  There’s also caution about saying whether the woman is pregnant, or the couple is (i.e. is the non-ankle-swelling, non-fatigued-as-I-don’t-know-what partner allowed to say that he/she is also pregnant when their partner is?).  There’s even my Director of Account Management’s personal pet peeve question “so when are you going to have a second kid?” (thanks @krisis for that one).

This proves we all readily admit there are questions that are just off-limits for certain people to be asked, right?

Over the course of writing this series, I came to realize that it’s actually not just about who is being asked the question.  There are actually a whole class of questions that are off-limits because of who is the one doing the asking.  For me, growing up as an Indian-American with pretty strong cultural norms about the place of children and elders, I guess I have always known that there are a lot of things it’s not my place to ask about.  But I think that in this country, where notions of freedom of information, right to free speech, etc. reign so important, there is less common awareness of how just asking a question can be inappropriate given who you, the asker, are and who the person being asked is.

There are many who are going to read this as political correctness and brush it off.  That’s up to you (dare I say, that is your right).  My goal this quarter was to focus on how aspects of company culture can support the kind of workplace flexibility that I believe is so needed by parents.  What I came to understand recently is that asking questions has a lot of impact on how people feel in busy start-ups.  In particular, asking questions about parenthood has a real impact on how parents feel in the workplace.

Let me explain with two examples – one real and one synthesized from many conversations:

  1. REAL: I have had male peers who ask me these questions like “you must be crazed with running around after a kid – is it even reasonable for you to do X or Y by such and such date?”  Or, “are you getting any sleep?”  These questions may seem innocuous, or even empathetic.  But they aren’t.  Let’s face it – we don’t have gender parity when it comes to power in the workplace.  The greater context is that most men (and many women) have a negative bias towards the workplace contribution levels of working mothers.  Studies even show while being a father helps a man’s professional career, it often penalizes a woman’s.  I have a pretty strong ego and have a very strong sense of my worth in business.  But even I have moments of self-doubt about whether I’m pulling enough late hours, enough weekend generation-of-big-ideas, enough whatever you can think of.  I don’t need a peer, who has similar authority to me, yet who has not experienced my special thread of insecurities, to ask me about these things.  I’m a grown up with authority – just let me know if I’m not meeting my professional expectations and obligations.
  2. SYNTHESIZED:  Let’s say there is a female team member who is pregnant, and exhausted.  Like feels like she just ran a marathon exhausted.  All the time.  ALL THE TIME.  Let’s say that she is in a demanding and busy tech company.  And she knows she isn’t being as productive as she once was (and maybe worries she won’t ever be again) but maybe, just maybe, she is being productive enough.  Then, a male says to her “you seem really tired” or “how are you dealing with this whole pregnancy thing?”.  Bam!  You know what just happened?  Everything she had been banking on, that she was holding her exhaustion in check, that she was being productive enough to not cause concern, the whole bubble gets burst.  She needs empathy and security about her role in the workplace, but it has to come from the right person.  The right person doesn’t have to be a female; it has to be someone who is perceived by the team member to be someone who doesn’t have an agenda, who expresses empathy genuinely, has real rapport with her, etc.

And lest you think this is a concern of only women, it’s not.  I’ve heard similar stories from and feelings expressed by young fathers as well, especially when they become dads early in their career.  And when I thought about how to express this issue and how to handle it, I wasn’t quite clear about it…until I had the opportunity to talk with a male peer whom I respect very much.  He said it pretty simply, actually:  “if a person has an insecurity about something, you probably shouldn’t ask about it.”  (The “probably” is important there – if a person has an insecurity about their alcoholism at work, you obviously can’t leave that alone.)

Some of you are probably wondering how you know if someone has an insecurity about something.  I think we too quickly fall back on ignorance as a reason why we said something stupid.  Stop.  Think before you open your mouth.  Educate yourself on the perspectives and life experiences of the minorities in your life – whether that be sexual minorities, gender minorities, racial or cultural, economic, etc.   I think doing so is each person’s responsibility as a human – we ought to actively work to identify and understand (as best as possible) people who are very different to ourselves.

Another thing – Question your own motives for asking.  Do you really need to comment on this thing, or ask that question?  Is this a power thing, however “unconscious”?  I spend a lot of time educating my 3 year old on needs vs. wants.  She gets it very well.  All I have to say is “what you want” and she finishes it up with “and need are two different things”.  So do you need to ask that question, or do you simply want to?

Putting these practices into place in your daily work environment, and influencing and educating others about workplace sensitivity, will make for a much more hospitable culture for parents.  It’s not about getting rid of dialogue and conversation – but about having the dialogue in a way that feels mutually empowering.

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